Friday, September 08, 2006

The Troublesome Appeal of Eugenics

One thing I think I'll always remember from Robert Jay Lifton 's excellent book, The Nazi Doctors -- though not the only thing -- is the ease with which I found myself able to sympathize with certain aspects of the Nazi mindset, the "Nazi biomedical vision" as Lifton calls it.

The Nazis (and some others!) gave eugenics a bad name, and few openly embrace eugenics today. Yet eugenics had many eminent supporters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it's easy to see how people could be attracted to the idea of humanity taking control over its genetic pool and implementing eugenic measures designed to ensure that future generations are healthier, more intelligent, and of better moral character.

The view that racial differences are genetically important and that the races differ significantly in their intellectual and moral capacities has a similar history, involving some of the same figures. Like eugenics, the position had numerous eminent adherents in the 19th and early 20th centuries, only to become a political hot potato in the second half of the 20th century.

Both positions are of course abhorrent; let's take this as common ground. But I don't think they are obviously abhorrent. And it is that last fact to which I want to call your attention. In the current political climate, mainstream and liberal thinkers reflexively dismiss these views without, perhaps, appreciating their potential attractiveness to reasonable people in the right frame of mind and the right cultural context -- frames of mind and cultural contexts not too different from our own.

And of course, if you combine these two opinions (and certain views about the division and character of the races), one can come startlingly close to seeing merit in Nazi policy. In a Malthusian world, one might think it a moral duty to open up Lebensraum ("living space", i.e., new territory) for the genetically superior; given limited resources, one might think it best to trim away poor, and potentially genetically corrupting, stock. Evil can acquire the look of a moral imperative. If the heart rebels (as the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, one of my favorite moral psychologists, thinks it will), one might interpret that rebellion as misplaced compassion -- or at least compassion that should not be acted on, like the compassion that judges must sometimes set aside in delivering appropriately hard sentences.

That evil can disguise itself as reason is of course not news; but I think it salutary to remind ourselves sometimes how easily it can do so. Our ordinary, lazy habits of thinking tend to exaggerate the distance between ourselves and those we condemn.

Lifton writes:

Starvation as a method of killing was a logical extension of the frequent imagery of mental patients as "useless eaters." As a passive means of death, it was one more element of general neglect. In many places, mentally ill patients had already been fed insufficiently; and the idea of not nourishing them was "in the air" (p. 98).

and (you may wish to skip the following quote if you are easily upset):
I remember the gist of the following general remarks by Pfannmueller: These creatures (he meant the children) naturally represent for me as a National Socialist only a burden for the healthy body of the Volk. We do not kill (he could have here used a euphemistic expression for this word kill) with poison, injections, etc.; then the foreign press and certain gentlemen in Switzerland would only have new inflammatory material. No our method is much simpler and more natural, as you see. With these words, he pulled, with the help of a ... nurse, a child from its little bed. While he then exhibited the child like a dead rabbit, he asserted with a knowing expression and a cynical grin: For this one it will take two to three more days. The picture of this fat, grinning man, in his fleshy hand the wimpering skeleton, surrounded by other starving children, is still vivid in my mind (p. 62).

There are different kinds of evil -- evil in passion, evil in neglect -- but it is this cold evil, rigorously rationalized, whose shadowy potential in myself frightens me most.


Brad C said...

I am myself shocked and unsettled by claims that ethical character is determined by race or genetic make-up, but I am not sure what grounds I have for objecting to these claims.

I have been wondering about this ever since reading a paper in which Joshua Knobe and Brian Leiter defend a (genetic, not race-based) view of this sort. Anyone who has not seen it can find it here:

If you combine (some kinds of) consequentialism with a view of this sort, you might not get a justification for torture or the more horrific practices, but you seem to be able to get a justification for "phasing out the bad genes" by less obviously horrific/disturbing means. I guess that is part of your point. The consequentialist might respond by appeal to the negative "expressive" effects of adopting this sort of policy, but that seems like too weak of a response.

How do you think we should react (and criticize?) views like Knobe and Leiter's?

kboughan said...

You all are aware that modern biology concedes practically no genetic basis to race? The genetic difference between a human individual commonly recognized say, as "black," and another as "white," is negligible.

Race is real, of course, but it is cultural and historical construction.

I'm a little disturbed by the apparent assumption that questions of which human types to save and which to discard somehow can be detached from the political regime or the culture in which they are asked.

State officials in ancient Sparta ordered the exposure of newborns whom they judged would not be fit soldiers or mothers of soldiers. The Spartan polis turned on war and preparation for war. Our polity turns on consumption and working to consume. Arguably a good critical thinker is not an ideal consumer. If we wanted to weed out the unfit in our own age, we should start with the families who still read and think a little. We should snuff the blastocysts that carry the genes that make better artists and social critics.

I imagine that scientists or philosophers who argue for eugenics (beyond phasing out horrible genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs, or severe congenital deformities) assume some set of ethical predispositions that are eminently desirable. We could start by asking on what grounds be they so desirable? Does the philosopher or scientist really think that he stands from some divine vantage point, outside of culture, outside of history, from which to judge these matters?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I sympathize completely with what you say, Brad, but I haven't read the Knobe and Leiter. I'll have to check it out!

Your point, kboughan, about what traits exactly should be weeded out, and how that is decided, I also agree with completely -- though I might not have thought to put it quite as starkly and interestingly as you did! That's part of why I meant to take it as "common ground" that eugenics is abhorrent. Similarly, I recognize -- and probably should have made this more explicitly clear in the original post -- that the current scientific consensus is that traditional racial divisions have little or no biological significance. But of course the point of the post was precisely *not* to display the reasons for rejecting those views -- reasons amply and ably discussed elsewhere. Rather, I wished to express my own feeling that these views could be alarmingly attractive with relatively little intellectual shift from our current cultural position, to suggest, in other words, that the Nazi mind is not as far from our own (or my own) as we might find it comfortable to think.

That's not really new, either, of course. Perhaps here's the real motivation: I wanted to confess, and invite the reader to share, the spooky fear I had in reading The Nazi Doctors that I could too easily be a Pfannmueller.

Anonymous said...

"I'm a little disturbed by the apparent assumption that questions of which human types to save and which to discard somehow can be detached from the political regime or the culture in which they are asked."

On the other hand, it seems to me that the assumption behind this disturbance is that because a question is asked from within a political regime or culture it is eo ipso a reason to consider it invalid or its answer incorrect. Vantage points as regards a subject matter don't need to be divine to be correct - unless of course you're flirting with anti-realism to begin with. That's not to say that answering the questions correctly is anything but a highly non-trivial matter. Far from it. I just don't think that views such as, say, transhumanism can be dismissed so easily.

Genius said...

I think "we" are just wrong, which explains the appeal of their arguments. ie that eugenics could be used to achieve goals, and I don't need to be specific because it includes almost everyone's goals (even if some goals may be obviously wrong)

It is also not too disturbing for me to consider that the correct answer may well be abhorent and to be shunned. So I am ok with purging text books of evidence that shows differences between races or genetic relationships between psychological traits and families even if such things are things that we would have no hope of countering in a scientific debate (but easy to counter with "you're a nazi!").

I would hope we didn't have to do that of course, but I could live with it and we seem to be living with it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Unsettling thoughts, genius!